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In Defense of Bill Laimbeer: The right man for the job

Counted out, glossed over, never had a chance-- if you believe the reports, it isn't likely that Bill Laimbeer will be seriously considered to be the next Detroit Pistons head coach. Why trust a guy like Laimbeer when the bulk of his coaching experience was in the WNBA? Why give him a shot when his temper is more famous than his on-court production? Why consider Laimbeer when names like Mark Jackson, Lawrence Frank, Mike Woodson and Kelvin Sampson are on the board? The answer is pretty simple-- when you break it down, the arguments for hiring Bill Laimbeer are more compelling than the arguments against, and the values he embodies are precisely what this Pistons team needs.

I've read opinions elsewhere that Bill Laimbeer is not the right guy for this job. Fans from other teams have even visited here to ask why we are so optimistic about Laimbeer. I'd like to tackle the main talking points against Laimbeer, starting with my response to that question about why we love us some Laimbeer in Detroit:

We're interested in what Bill Laimbeer represents: hard work, brick-wall defense, a fiery heart and a "f**k you" attitude to the superstars and the rules that were put in place to coddle them. That’s what Detroit used to stand for. There is no coaching candidate that embodies that more than Laimbeer. We want and need that in Detroit so dearly that we have developed a cult following of Laimbeer.

If he hadn’t won several titles in the WNBA and hadn’t performed admirably as an assistant, our preference for Laimbeer would be idealistic at best. But the guy is on his way to a head coaching job, and with Detroit’s needs, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be given that chance by the franchise upon which he built his name.

Bill Laimbeer is "Inexperienced", "Unqualified", "Not ready"

There's a common misconception amongst NBA sports writers, bloggers and fans-- that to be successful, an NBA coach must have a wealth of experience before running a team. Bill Laimbeer has seven years of head coaching experience with the WNBA (while earning three championships) and one year of experience as an assistant coach to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Is this enough to earn the trust of NBA teams? Have there been successful NBA coaches with less experience than Bill Laimbeer? Here are a few examples:

  • Pat Riley - after retiring from the league, Riley spent some time as a color commentator before earning a job as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. After one season as an assistant, prior coach Paul Westhead was fired amidst a clash with Magic Johnson and Riley took the reins. 1,210 wins later, Riley is a hall-of-fame coach with less prior experience than Bill Laimbeer.
  • Don Nelson - more wins than any other coach in NBA history, less prior experience than Bill Laimbeer. Upon his retirement as a player, Nelson was named the head coach and GM of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976.
  • Lenny Wilkins - just a few wins shy of Nellie's record, Lenny Wilkins holds the number two spot with 1332 career wins. Prior to taking over as head coach (and still a player) for the Supersonics, Wilkins had zero coaching experience.
  • John Kundla - this hall of fame coach spent his time as a high school coach before spending a few years at the world famous (i'm joking, it's tiny) College of St. Thomas. Kundla coached the Lakers for 11 years to a .583 record.
  • Red Holzman - this Knickerbocker's legend coached NY for 18 years to a .535 record with zero prior coaching experience.
  • Jerry Sloan - the famed Jazz coach had exactly five days of college coaching experience and one season of assisting before taking the head coaching reins for the Chicago Bulls.

I understand how some could argue that seven seasons in the WNBA may not adequately translate to NBA coaching experience. I understand that, on its own, one season of assistant coaching in the NBA may not be enough to move up to a head coaching gig. However, many of the greatest coaches in NBA history had less experience than Bill Laimbeer, and franchise stories have been made on the decisions to hire some of these legendary coaches. Call Laimbeer "inexperienced", "unqualified" or "not ready", but you could certainly say the same or worse to the luminaries listed above.

Does Laimbeer have the character to be an NBA head coach?

If you're not a Pistons fan, you remember Bill Laimbeer for different reasons than we do. You remember the asshole, the fighter, the flopper, the attitude, the in-your-face bad boy that personified nastiness in the NBA. If you are a Pistons fan, you got to see a different Bill Laimbeer. You saw an unparalleled basketball IQ. You saw the league's best rebounder before losing that title to his teammate Dennis Rodman. You saw a near seven footer with a shooting touch that stretched for miles, one of the league's earliest stretch centers who never shied away from doing damage in the paint. Bill Laimbeer the coach has an unique playing experience to draw from, an experience he applied to his success in the WNBA.

Much has been said about Laimbeer's relationship with WNBA star Swin Cash. While the reports put Laimbeer's taste squarely into question, the performance of Cash was on the decline while the Shock's record held steady without her. After her departure, the Shock secured their third title under Laimbeer. Cash's stardom put a lot of light on Laimbeer during that rough patch, but the reports clearly suggest that no personality was more in charge of that team than Laimbeer himself. The reports of this clash are unfortunate, but the ultimate metric of wins vs. losses remained steady under Laimbeer no matter what the press reported.

Personally, I certainly don't mind if a coach is going to rib his/her players, especially given the alternative the Pistons have seen over the last mutiny-filled season. Can anyone argue that Laimbeer is not a take-charge, dominant personality who will push his players to the best of their ability? Sure, dude may be an asshole at the worst of days, but sometimes that is precisely what the doctor ordered. The time for that, Pistons fan, is now.

Why not Frank, Woodson, Sampson or otherwise?

Quite simply, because Bill Laimbeer is the perfect guy for the job. Of the alternatives, Kelvin Sampson has the most promising collegiate record but the most disturbing ethical history. Frank and Woodson have both been NBA head coaches, and both have failed to keep their jobs. Let's examine each coaching opportunity a bit further:

  • Kelvin Sampson - So the dude made a few hundred phone calls that he shouldn't have. So he made a few more phone calls after being placed on probation. It ended his career in Indiana, and showed a lack of respect for the rules that he continued to violate after being reprimanded. If you were a GM, would you trust Sampson not to overstep his bounds? It may be hard to imagine how Sampson could repeat himself in the NBA, but free agent tinkering can have very serious consequences for a franchise. Even if he stays within the rule book, his kind of power trip could lead him to encroach upon the job of the very GM that hires him.
  • Lawrence Frank - The Nets front office didn't do Frank many favors as his win record diminished. He was stuck with a pretty terrible roster, and ultimately lost the team while starting off the 2009-10 season with sixteen consecutive losses. The problem is that 2009-10 Nets team looked eerily similar to the 2010-11 Pistons team, featuring an inconsistent, shoot-poorly-first point guard, a young, upcoming big man and a roster packed with sixth men. Frank's identity changed often during those last few years, and this Pistons team is aching for a strong, unmovable identity from its head coach.
  • Mike Woodson - Woodson's experience in Atlanta was the opposite of Frank's-- things started poorly, but improved every year that the roster did. His final year in Atlanta, Woodson coached a solid group of players to a .646 record, but was met with an early playoff exit for the third year in a row. Woodson appeared to be good at getting the most out of his players, but he was often the victim of being out-coached by his competition, especially in the playoffs. After 2009-10, the Hawks let Woodson expire, believing they could do better without him. It turns out they could-- after being swept by the Orlando Magic last year, the Hawks trounced the Magic in the 2011 playoffs with a lesser roster. The problem with Woodson-- it's likely that we've already seen his ceiling, and the Pistons may end up finding that out for themselves when it is already too late.

Despite their issues, each of these coaching candidates could make a good head coach for the Pistons. Woodson would be a serviceable interim coach during rebuilding-- he's done it before. Frank may lack the solid vision the Pistons need given the turbulence of 2011, but he too would be an improvement over Kuester. Finally, Sampson may represent the highest ceiling, despite being a potential threat to his team's GM or the legal standing of his franchise.

Why not Bill Laimbeer?

These Pistons clearly need a coach with big brass balls. They need a coach who can motivate and get the absolute best from his players. They need a return to an emphasis on brick-wall defense, a return to the identity that this franchise is built upon. Finally, they need a return to the passion, the fire and the drive that defined not only the Bad Boys of the 80s, but the Going to Work group of the last decade. Between Sampson, Frank, Woodson and Laimbeer, which coaching candidate embodies these values the most?

Bill Laimbeer brought those values to the Detroit Shock, taking them from laughing stock to the best team in the WNBA in his first season. The core players remained the same, but Bill carried them from the bottom to the top. No matter the league, this is a remarkable transformation-- one that is surprisingly and quickly discounted by fans and the media alike.

Even if you ignore the production Laimbeer got out of the Detroit Shock, he has as much or more experience than some of the greatest coaches in NBA history. This doesn't suggest that Laimbeer will join that group, but that the calls for more seasoning are less relevant than they appear. As I said above, the man is clearly on his way to a head coaching gig in the NBA, and it just so happens that the team he built his legacy with is looking for precisely what he brings to the table.

This is an Occam's Razor situation, the opportunity is so stunningly simple that I'm surprised people are even debating it. Everything that the Pistons need in a coach is everything that this man represents. It's not his history with the Pistons that make him the right man for the job, but his history here is what gives us fans an insight into just what he would represent as a head coach.

What are the risks?

The risks with Laimbeer are virtually the same as the risks with Sampson, Frank and Woodson. The roster will still be a mess for whichever coach inherits it. The thing is, we know the ceiling with Woodson, we know the basement with Frank, and we know red flags on Sampson. The next year or two are going to suck, and it's about time Joe gives a chance to somebody he won't be so quick to fire. In fact, it's about time Joe gives a chance to the guy who was seemingly born for the job description we have. This doesn't need to be rocket science. Bill Laimbeer is unequivocally the right man for this job. Not next year, not the year after-- right now.